BRUNEAU — At 6 a.m. on a mid-January day, a trio of hunters sat cloaked in layers of camouflage, waiting for first light when they could begin shooting during what would likely be one of the final duck hunts of the year.
With an hour before the hunt could begin, their decoys already floating in the water, the particle board duck blind disguised by sheafs of reeds and grasses, Brad Brooks, Ian Malepeai and Becca Aceto passed the minutes with fowl-focused conversation.
Aceto, who began hunting only recently, said she’d hunted nearby a few days prior with decent luck. Snowflakes started to flurry, and the hunters, cautiously optimistic, hunkered down with their eyes to the sky.
Brooks, 36, has hunted at the Bruneau-area blind since he was a teenager growing up in Meridian. Malepeai, who grew up in Pocatello, also has spent decades hunting deer, waterfowl and chukar. Both learned the tradition from their fathers, something that’s become less and less common in recent decades.
Across the country, the number of hunters has steadily decreased in the last 50 years thanks to urbanization and a shift in tradition. To an extent, Idaho has bucked the trend but it’s becoming clear that something has to change — maybe the hunters themselves.
By the numbers
For the first time in its 120-year history, Idaho Fish and Game has a marketing department — created last year — and as the department’s director, Malepeai’s task is to help hunting continue to thrive in Idaho.
“In the past, state agencies didn’t have a marketing problem,” Malepeai said. “They didn’t need to market.”
That’s because existing hunters were doing the work for them. Mentoring has long been the primary way new hunters pick up the practice, just like Brooks and Malepeai did.
But rather than come to hunting largely through tradition, today’s hunters seem to be spurred by a wider selection of catalysts, according to Brooks, director of the Wilderness Society’s public lands campaign. That can be anything from a desire for adventure and new challenges to a love for the environment or gourmet game-based dishes.
Fish and Game is happy to embrace them all.
“In Idaho, we represent all hunters and all anglers in the state, and motivations vary,” Malepeai said. “We’re looking at newcomers who are moving to Idaho for the outdoors and how we can help them become Idahoan.”
He said statistics show the number of people passing the practice on to their children is waning nationwide. Since 2000, the number of hunters in Idaho has only decreased about 3 percent — from 217,514 license holders in 2000 to 209,967 license holders in 2018. But the fact that Idaho’s population has grown by around 400,000 people in that same time period raises red flags.
“Idaho has actually been able to maintain a steady level of license numbers, but as a percentage of the population, it’s not as large as it was in the past,” Malepeai said. “Part of it is just the changing demographics of the state.”
The percentage of Idaho hunters in their 50s and 60s has increased over the past 20 years, while the percentage of hunters in their teens, 20s and 30s has slightly decreased.
“We’re hoping for the best,” Malepeai said. “But the fear is the baby boomer generation is just aging out [of hunting]. Our hope is we can keep this as part of what makes Idaho great.”
Fish and Game offers a hunting passport program as an incentive for novice hunters. Malepeai plans to introduce a virtual reality experience that allows new hunters to mimic field dressing a deer. He hopes it will help boost confidence for less experienced hunters.
Malepeai pointed out that if hunting and fishing numbers continue to falter, so does the agency’s ability to manage Idaho’s wildlife. Though the agency is tasked with overseeing all of Idaho’s game and non-game animals, the bulk of its funding comes from licenses, tags and permits. Fish and Game gets additional revenue from taxes on hunting and fishing equipment, but the state’s share of those funds is determined by the number of license holders in the state.
“Hunting’s trying to stay relevant in a society that’s changing,” Aceto said.
And that means welcoming all kinds.
YouTube, rifles and sustainability
For a few years after she first moved to Stanley, Aceto had no need to hunt. She’d grown up in Ohio, part of an outdoorsy family that hiked and fished, but she hadn’t forayed into hunting. Her boyfriend at the time offered her extra game meat, as did friends and coworkers on occasion.
After the relationship with her boyfriend ended, so did the bulk of the gifted meat. Aceto’s freezer gradually emptied. She hadn’t bought meat from a grocery store in years and had become accustomed to the idea of sustainable food — the kind that didn’t come from massive farming operations.
“I realized if I wanted to continue that lifestyle, I had to do it myself,” said Aceto, who moved to Boise in 2018 to work for the Idaho Wildlife Federation.
She bought a gun.
“The first rifle I bought was completely the wrong one,” Aceto said. “I hunted very unsuccessfully my first season.”
So she bought a new rifle after hours of research, and spent even more hours practicing aiming, shooting, anything to dissolve the kinds of doubts that she’d had in her first gun.
As a field biologist and former ranger in the Frank Church wilderness, Aceto was already familiar with the challenges of navigating land off the grid, but things like shooting and field dressing posed challenges. While she learned, Aceto sought out friends and colleagues to replicate the mentor relationship many hunters grew up with — something she encouraged any aspiring hunters to do.
“Ask questions, allow yourself to be unsure and be a novice,” Aceto said.
Being a novice can mean learning in unusual ways. Aceto was alone when she killed a pronghorn last year, quickly realizing that the reality of butchering the animal didn’t quite match her research. So she pulled up YouTube videos on her phone to piece together the best method of field dressing the animal.
“I hate the internet, but it’s very helpful when you’re learning,” she said.
New motivations for longtime hunters
Between them, Brooks, Malepeai and Aceto took six mallard ducks during their Bruneau hunt. On the drive home, Brooks joked that he grew up thinking he didn’t like duck. His family frequently made pan-fried duck breast, he said, and he’d balked at the gamey flavor.
He’s not the only one. Searches online describe duck meat in pretty dodgy terms — calling it an “acquired taste,” tiptoeing around its “different taste” or “stronger flavor.”
But Brooks’ tastes have changed wildly over the years. Now a self-described “foodie,” his hunts take on an added layer as he plans the creative or unusual dishes he’ll make with the meat he harvests. Often, he’ll prepare game feasts for family and friends, like the one he hosted at his Boise home three days after his January duck hunt.
Brooks brined several of the ducks overnight, glazed them in high-quality maple syrup and smoked them for hours, letting the thick layer of winter fat melt into the skin until the birds developed a sweet, smoky flavor akin to candied bacon. Aceto arrived with a pan of nachos piled high with ground elk. Malepeai brought whitetail deer stroganoff. Brooks’ brother Brian made elk meatballs in a hoisin-based sauce.
“I’m more adventurous with the food I put in my freezer than the food I get at the store,” Aceto said.
Much has been made of the “foodie revolution” in recent years, and it’s clear the culture has stepped into the hunting world.
After the potluck, Malepeai’s wife, Hailey, used the duck carcasses to make broth for Vietnamese pho topped with deer backstrap. From the antelope she butchered with internet guidance, Aceto has made ramen and bahn mi sandwiches. One of Brooks’ favorite recipes is osso buco, a dish made with braised deer or elk shanks, the crosscut bone full of marrow.
It’s a far cry from the burgers and pan-fried cuts of meat he grew up on.
“I don’t think I could’ve predicted 10 years ago that food would be such a big part of the culture,” Brooks said.
Of course, there have always been hunters willing to cook creative game dishes. Boise chef Randy King published a cookbook in 2015 boasting unique game-based meals. But King and fellow Boisean Mark Owsley, chef at The Gamekeeper Restaurant, became adventurous after experience as chefs.
For average folks, it has long been enough to make steaks, sausage and burgers. The Statesman’s archives show our most adventurous game recipe recommendation may have been venison stroganoff.
It may also be an entry point to the culture. A well-prepared meal can be a way to bring new people to the conversation, a phenomenon Brooks said is sometimes called “venison diplomacy.”
“You don’t talk about the hunting part, but the food part of it,” Brooks said. “Wild game can serve a function of bringing people together in a way that’s apolitical.”
Some things never change
So much about hunting may be shifting, but the values are nonetheless rooted in the past.
“I think in many ways [new hunters today and people who’ve hunted for years], in many ways they’re not that different,” Brooks said. “They may not talk about [hunting] in the same way ... but the roots of hunting in the United States are based on sustainability and public lands.”
“It really doesn’t matter how you get brought in,” he said. “There’s a lot of shared values.”
Of course, there are barriers to how someone is brought in. Aceto pointed out that you can’t exactly practice shooting in your backyard. And she knows firsthand the difficulty of learning to hunt as someone unfamiliar with — and largely disinterested in — firearms.
As someone already well-versed in navigating backcountry, Aceto came to the practice with an advantage, she said. For someone who’s unfamiliar with both firearms and wilderness, the learning curve is steeper.
“I try to take out at least one new person hunting each year,” Brooks said.
He said hunters have a moral imperative to bring people into the activity if they want to see it survive. As family mentoring declines, more and more of the burden falls on the shoulders of today’s hunters, Brooks said.
Recently he mentored a friend who grew up in Seattle.
“He’d never hunted a day in his life,” Brooks said. “He was really interested in this idea of getting his own meat. He went from being a stereotypical urbanite to being hooked. He loves it.”
As Boise and Idaho grow, more “urbanites” may need to join in to keep Fish and Game’s funding model — and hunting tradition — afloat. To do that, the way non-hunters see the practice will need to change.
“Hunting is a victim of people not asking questions and jumping to conclusions,” Aceto said. “... If this is something that interests you or offends you or confuses you, ask questions. The outdoor community as a whole needs to think of hunting as part of that community, not as an outlier.”
Part of the onus of changing that perception falls to hunters, too, Brooks said.
“There is very much an ‘I will never apologize’ culture in the hunting world,” Brooks said. “And then there’s also a segment of hunters who ... ask you to be aware of how you portray it to the rest of the world. Nobody’s asking you to apologize — just be a good ambassador.”
He hopes the ambassadorship, the mentorship, the education efforts from groups like his and Malepeai’s and Aceto’s will be enough to make Idaho an exception to the decline in hunting participation. Because for many hunters, it’s more than a tradition. It’s a way to sustain themselves and their surroundings, to form bonds with other hunters and with the wilderness.
“It feels like what I was meant to do,” Aceto said. “When I’m out there pursuing an animal, it’s like the missing piece of the puzzle. It’s a deep connection, deeper than any I’ve had before.”